Third-party product certification schemes build on and strengthen the assurance provided by testing. They help to ensure that products and systems are consistently manufactured to exacting standards, have been installed correctly and/or will perform as required throughout the lifecycle of a building.
Origins of product certification
So how did it all begin? Product testing can be traced back to at least the 1800s, with people such as the inventor of the lightbulb, Thomas Edison, leading the way in testing the products they created. However, product certification as we know it began at the turn of the 20th century when the first national standards body in the world published standards on British Steel for tramways. Standardization began to spread across the Commonwealth, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, in the 1920s, with the US and Germany starting to take note as well. In the 1940s, a conference was held among Commonwealth countries to discuss standardization and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was born. The ISO continues to lead on product certification standards around the world today.
Passive fire product certification, which is one of the world’s most prevalent certification fields, also dates back to the early 20th Century when standards for the manufacture of fire doors were produced in the USA. A decade later, in 1913, testing of firewall systems commenced, leading to testing in a furnace, which is the process still adopted for fire-resistance testing today.
Growth of product certification
The UK was one of the global leaders in the development of product certification. In particular, the UK was at the forefront of testing, product certification and legislation around fire protection. The Great Fire of London in the 17th Century, one of the most famous fire incidents in the world, led to the most significant reform in legislation around fire for its time. This reform in fire legislation was adopted in other cities around London, in what is now known as the UK.
More recently, the London Building Acts 1930–39 introduced bylaws about building height, materials, end-use and means of escape, though these were not legally enforceable and were often ignored. This is a common trend throughout the history of product certification, and is something that still exists in some regions. Where comprehensive legislation does not exist and product certification is merely ‘encouraged,’ many businesses continue to ignore it – most often in a bid to save costs. However, we know that the assurance from product certification can provide significant cost savings in the long term.
Twenty years after the London Buildings Act, the importance and priority of these regulations was recognized by the Public Health Act 1961, which created one set of standards across the UK and led to a significant increase in awareness across the country as a whole.
In the 21st century, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RR(FS)O) further simplified more than 40 years of legislation. The Order outlined considerations for how a building will be used, and created the role of the ‘responsible person’ for every building. The responsible person should be aware of all legal requirements and is responsible for undertaking fire-safety assessments and fire-risk assessments, ensuring that the in-use phase of a building’s lifecycle is not neglected and that all regulations are upheld. They are mandated to take reasonable steps to reduce risk from fire and make sure people can escape safely. This applies to both existing buildings and newly built, occupied buildings, and it is important building owners and facility managers have the correct procedures in place.
As more product certification and regulatory changes were introduced, the UK market adapted relatively well. The country was familiar with the concept of fire-risk assessment as the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 (as amended 1999) had been in place. However, this ran in tandem with the Fire Precautions Act 1971, which required designated buildings to have a fire certificate issued under that act. Therefore, for a number of years, some premises had duplicate legislation to comply with – fire-product certification under the Fire Precautions Act 1971 and fire-risk assessments under the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997. The RR(FS)O 2005 replaced both pieces of legislation with the aim of simplifying fire safety, and so was well-received by the industry.
The future of product certification
Product certification is an evolving process and there will always be new developments and requirements as technologies and construction methods grow and change. In the UK, the Fire Safety Act 2021 has proposed changes to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, with particular focus on ensuring a defined trail from a product’s original intent and manufacture to its role and performance in situ, with a good understanding of every step and decision along the way. The UK has also set up a new national construction products regulator to ensure homes are built from safe materials. And whilst fluctuating processes might seem like an inconvenience, businesses already in the habit of complying with all regulations through comprehensive product certification, will have the necessary processes in place to adapt.
As well as those regions with existing product certification processes in place, many regions around the world are now moving towards adopting more rigid requirements. For example, current legislation in Australia only calls for the testing of building products, including passive-fire-protection products, and there is no product certification requirement. Manufacturers can make and sell their products based on the performance of a single fire-resistance test, with no requirement for further testing or checks for the life of that product. Some manufacturers continue to produce products based on testing conducted many years ago, creating uncertainty in the quality of mass-produced items. While this may not lead to any potential issues, there is no way to quantify this gap without a more robust system in place. Even without intentional change to the manufacturing process, there will be changes in equipment, staff, experience and raw materials over time that can affect the quality and possibly the performance of the end product. The process of achieving product certification requires regular auditing of the factory production control process, which identifies any changes to the quality and performance of the product based on these fluctuating factors.
Further, to support the need for change in Australia, the Building Confidence Report (BCR), published in April 2018, made 24 recommendations to Building Ministers to address systemic issues in the Australian building industry. One of those recommendations, ‘Recommendation 21’ states that ‘The Building Ministers’ Forum agrees its position on the establishment of a compulsory product certification system for high-risk building products.’
State and territory governments have agreed to consider implementation of all BCR-endorsed responses. The time frame for implementation is unknown, although the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) has produced a discussion paper around this recommendation, proposing a holistic package of measures to provide a reliable conformity assessment framework as well as a focus on product conformance. The need in the construction industry is broader than product certification though, and they have identified five key areas of focus for change:
- Element 1: Strengthened evidence of suitability requirements in the National Construction Code (NCC)
- Element 2: Building product information obligations for manufacturers and suppliers
- Element 3: Improved product labelling and traceability
- Element 4: Increased research, surveillance and information sharing
- Element 5: Strengthened compliance and enforcement
This crack in the armour of Australia’s building industry has now been recognized and the country is likely to move in the same direction as the UK and other regions around the world in terms of adopting stricter legislation and product-certification requirements. Many third-party product-certification providers already operate in the country and the sooner manufacturers and installers begin the process, the easier it will be to comply when new regulations are introduced.
Robust product certification can provide cost savings, protect reputations and set the bar above competitors, ensure business continuity and, most importantly, save lives. Testing is a critical step in a product’s development, but history shows us that the ongoing quality of a fire-protection product and its ability to perform as intended is more likely when that testing is backed up by third-party product certification and inspection. Independent, third-party product certification schemes, such as the Warringtonfire ‘Certifire’ scheme, provide the regulator, specifier, customer and end user with confidence in the stated performance of a product and offer an informed choice when selecting and purchasing it. There may well come a point when all products around the world require product certification, so now is the time to get the upper hand and ensure products are high-quality, high-performance, compliant, traceable – and most of all, safe.
For more information, go to www.warringtonfire.com